|Julia Roberts has called her "the most beautiful woman in the world" and this year Time magazine listed her among the world's hundred most influential people.
Bollywood goddess Aishwarya Rai has recently been seen on UK small screens in the epic Devdas, alongside fellow Bollywood heart-throb Shahrukh Khan. She also stars opposite Meryl Streep in Chaos, due out next year.
Here, the 29-year-old former Miss World chats to HELLO! about her fame to date and how she's planning to make the Bollywood-Hollywood transition.
As a young science student, born in Mangalore and brought up in Bombay, did you have any idea what the future had in store for you?
"Absolutely none! My childhood dream was to become a doctor, perhaps a neurosurgeon or a paediatrician! But as the years went by, I was drawn to the arts, with architecture replacing medicine as my profession of choice. However, I did a little modelling on the side for fun!"
Seeking to shed her supermodel image, Aishwarya put on 20lbs for her Bride And Prejudice role. This figure-hugging dress in stretch silk from Armani’s autumn/winter haute couture collection certainly shows off her feminine curves to advantage
|From medicine to Miss World - how did that happen? |
"It all started in college. An English professor, who was also a prominent photojournalist, asked me to pose for a feature, after which offers poured in. I never went the regular route of having a portfolio made. But I stalled for a year, which in hindsight seems to be a pattern before every big step in my life!
"Initially, I would only commit to assignments on free weekends. But almost a year and a half later, peer pressure pushed me into participating in the Miss India, followed by the Miss World beauty pageant. At the same time, there were offers coming in from the movie industry.
"I hadn't even considered doing movies at this point, but all the top directors in India were convinced showbiz was where I belonged."
Why do you think you stalled?
"Perhaps you could call me the proverbial tortoise, slow and hopefully steady. I am not an opportunist, and just because a carrot is dangled in front of me I won't chase it. I gauge and reason whether I would be good at something, meditate on it, get in touch with myself and finally I do it for me - not for the promises of fame and fortune that it might bring."
How did you cope with the fame that came with being crowned Miss World?
"It was an interesting opportunity that went beyond being a beauty queen. I had decided that I would be representative of Indian women internationally, and that's what I gave to the title. As for changing me, well, among many other things, it put me deeply in touch with myself. When you have a megaphone shoved into your face 24/7 you'd better make it your business to participate and give your opinions correctly and responsibly."
What was your favourite bit of the Miss World pageant?
"I was ecstatic when I discovered that they had actually taken on board my suggestion of changing the 'swimsuit round' into a 'beachwear fashion round' which lays less emphasis on objectifying women. It felt wonderful as a woman to have been able to bring about that change."
You started your film career with Tamil films made in South India, which is classified as regional cinema. Why did you choose the so-called second grade of the industry to start with?
"Oh, this was absolutely my choice. I wanted to make it clear that I was open to all cinema, irrespective of language, be it Tamil, Bengali, Hindi or English. I am not judgmental about commercial or independent cinema. I could have started in Bollywood, but I wanted to break all those clichés concerning upcoming artists."
With absolutely no experience in the field how did you feel so confident about the choices you were making?
"My first movie, Iruvar, was with Mani Ratnam, a director whom I respected greatly. And in fact, I was never perceived as a beginner. So I had to learn quickly. Before I knew it, I was working like any established actress on three films."
What has finally inspired you to pursue a career as an actress in Hollywood?
"Strangely, the media encouraged me to make the decision with the positive response I received during my appearances in Cannes."
Compared to Indian films, Hollywood demands a more relaxed approach to sexuality. Have you considered the effect that nudity in an international film could have on your audiences back home?
"I have to be convinced about how imperative the sex is to a particular film, and relate that to my comfort levels. A recent Indian film I did required the women to be wearing saris without underwear. There were major discussions about it and although I might not have done so in another instance, this time I went along with the director's decision. To tell you the truth, I did wear underwear, but we constructed it in such a way that cinematographically the director got what he wanted and I achieved what I needed to within my comfort zone! Now I am toying with the idea of a body double."
What has your most exhilarating experience in Hollywood been to date?
"Twelve years ago, I was asked to name my favourite Hollywood actors, who are Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep. What is interesting is that one of the first people I met in Hollywood was Robert De Niro, which of course was an incredible experience. And in my first Hollywood film, Chaos, I am starring opposite Meryl Streep.
That aside, it feels so good to be contributing to the movement of Indian talent working overseas and strengthening the Indian persona on the international stage."
Would you classify yourself as a feminist, because you have stood up for women's rights in Indian cinema?
"No, not a feminist. I classify myself as a humanist who's been able to contribute by defying a lot of norms and making changes to the way actresses are treated. I was brought up in a nuclear family with an elder brother as an equal. Therefore, it has always been important for me to be treated as an equal professionally."
How do you make time in your hectic schedule for yourself?
"You know, honestly, I love making films. I love being an actress, and am involved in all aspects of the films I participate in. Travelling is another thing I adore. Sitting on the plane is my time to think.
"However, I've made a conscious decision to make only one movie at a time and spend some more time with my family and devote more time to the social causes that I have been committed to ever since my Miss World days.
"Above all, I want to create more time for me! I really don't know what life has in store for me! I'm a contented person, I'm happy with what's in hand. But I still have several ideas and what puts me at ease is that there is a lifetime left to explore them."
Aishwarya steps out in a stunning silver strapless gown from the current Giorgio Armani collection